My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.

Category: City Council (page 3 of 57)

Abortion Clinic Regulations – Part Deux

Recall that, when last we met, the Council had passed a resolution asking the staff to overhaul the entire zoning ordinance.  The same zoning ordinance that was enacted in the 1950's.  When we had working farms in the City. Fun fact: my bus was late to school a number of times because there were cattle in the road!!  The same zoning ordinance that has cost the taxpayers of Manassas the better part of $2 million dollars over the past 7 years.  Definitions of family.  Sexually oriented businesses.  Assembly uses in Industrial….and the hits keep a comin'.  Each time that this happens the Council, like a recovering alcoholic, swears off the sauce: "we're never doing that again.  It cost $200k and it's too damn expensive!!"  We look, bleary-eyed, at one another and agree that "we need to take the tough vote and overhaul the entire zoning code in order to put this to bed once and for all".

But for all of that determination, it never happens.  We stagger into the populism bar and fall off the wagon.  "$20k doesn't seem like so much to regulate abortion clinics"…$20k is just a downpayment and we're off….

Last night we had about 100 folks come to the Council meeting and demand that we take up and pass Mr. Aveni's proposed zoning amendment.  This amendment would align one of our local zoning definitions – the one for outpatient centers in particular – with language found in the state code.  This change would mean that the City would include abortion clinics as outpatient centers.  It would also require a special use permit for any of those facillities to locate in the city.  

Allow me to be clear: I've no love of abortion but this process was already in place.  It's what the Council voted on last time around.  Those that want to see this regulation tightened were going to get what they wanted, just not when they wanted it.  Some mentioned it would take 3 years.  That's not accurate.  The "definitions" part of the zoning code – the part that defines what a "restaurant"  or "outpatient facility" is and does – was going to be the first part of the task we took up.  That was slated to be done by the middle/end of summer.  That wasn't soon enough for the anti-abortion folks.  So, they did what succesful political movements do and packed the room.  Citizens time was several hours longzoning 2 after which Mr. Aveni brought up his resolution again and asked for a vote to send this zoning code amendment along with a requirement that a SUP be issued for abortion or other outpatient surgical centers that want to open in the city to the planning commission.  Mr. Randolph offered a substitute motion that asked that the staff study this issue for the next 2 weeks and have a staff report ready at the next Council meeting where the vote could be taken.  This passed and this item will be on the agenda for our first meeting in March.  

My concern is simple:

Having the Council dictate to the staff that a SUP be required is putting the cart before the horse.  When we have done this previously, we were told by our consultants (who were pretty sharp), staff and lawyers that we needed to do the legwork in order to demonstrate that regulation was necessary before we enacted changes to our zoning code.  Especially where federally protected users are concerned.  There has been some staff work done but the outcome seems unsure at this point.  This motion would appear to pre-judge the outcome of staff and legal work.  That's got potential to cause some remarkable legal headaches.  This is not some abstract concern that can be hand-waved away.  Here's the takeaway:  I support an effort to examine medical uses but I want the City to follow the necessary process and the medical uses work be part of a larger overhaul.  That's it.  Doing is seperately is risky and far, far more expensive.

As a general comment it continues to frustrate me that the Council refuses to spend time on municipal policy until some problem explodes in front of us and after which we rush to drown it in money or just ignore it.  We are adding money for jail space and police officers at a regular rate….doesn't that beg the question as to whether we should be examining less expensive strategies to see if we can't keep this from happening?  We're spending $1 million a year on a library system that doesn't have a branch in the city.  Manassas Park is opting out.  Too expensive and no branches are being built near either city.  Average incomes in the City continue to lag our peers by a wide margin and we have more affordable housing than anyone in NoVa….in the middle of one of the richest counties in the entire country.  Doesn't that bother anyone?  The City has no viable strategic plan so is it any wonder the city is struggling to thrive?  The inertia of idleness is accelerating to an extent where something really groundbreaking will be a necessary predicate for meaningful action.

Zoning Text Amendments for Abortion Clinics

There has been a fair amount of kerfuffle about a recent examination by the Land Use committee of the City Council of the zoning ordinance, text and definitions.  Specifically as it pertains to abortion clinics and other out-patient medical providers.  At the request of Councilmember Aveni, the staff has done some legwork on the question of modifying our zoning code to require a Special Use Permit for either abortion clinics or just all outpatient surgical providers.  We had a meeting a couple of weeks ago about the subject.  The outcome of that meeting was a unanimous recommendation from the LU Committee to the full Council that the staff not address the zoning code on a subject by subject basis but rather pursue a comprehensive re-write.  This does not give priority to the abortion clinic/outpatient request.  The reason that I voted for the comprehensive re-write is that the City has shelled out well in excess of 1 million dollars of taxpayer money over zoning related issues since I've been on Council.  It started with the definition of family question championed by Jackson Miller and the last tranche was paid out studying assembly uses in industrial districts

Random Zoning Map

Random Zoning Map

What we are doing, in essence, is re-writing our zoning code to address a single legal issue at a time.  It's hideously expensive and we should stop being dumb about it.  Surrounding jurisdictions have had their codes overhauled and the price is about $150k which seems like a bargain compared to over $1 million.  The public's interest here is having a modern zoning code that governs modern problems, not patching potholes in outdated ordinances.  The framework of the existing zoning code was enacted in the middle 1950's.  We don't have working farms in Manassas anymore and our zoning code should act like it.

At the meeting Monday night the staff gave a presentation outlining their proposal to the full Council.  I admit to being surprised at the number of people there!  Most meetings concerning zoning have zero attendees or only staff but we had a full house!  Given the subject I wasn't surprised to see the pro-life folk there but for maybe the first time ever the pro-choice crowd was well represented.  That was new.  In any event, the Council considered its options and voted 5-1 to direct the staff to pursue a complete overhaul.  The question about abortion clinics and other outpatient providers will be addressed as a part of this larger process and not as an individual item.  The proposal indicated that we will be using in-house staff to do the work and save money so the entire process will take several years.  Depending on the progress that the staff makes the Council may elect to revisit doing the entire process in-house if we have the money.

A word about Special Use Permits: no doubt that those who oppose abortions believe that requiring a SUP will prevent another clinic from locating in the City or at least make it very difficult.  It may make it difficult but it may or may not prevent it.  I've no love of abortion but it is currently legal.  The Special Use Permit process is designed to allow localities to work with applicants to address the "impacts" that certain types of businesses present.  Impacts might be traffic, noise and public health hazards among others.  If the SUP applicant can address the impacts as identified then the SUP is normally approved.  If the Council feels that the conditions for the SUP do not address the impacts they can deny the SUP.  Denying the permit because "we don't like it" isn't a defensible action.  That denial would have a good chance of being overturned upon appeal to the courts.  I'm not a zoning expert but the impacts of an abortion clinic would seem to be about the same as any other doctors office.  

However, we do have zoning experts on staff and that's why they're looking at it and not me.  The hospital is a big employer and might attract many more outpatient providers.  Will that eventually cause an issue?  I don't know but the guys we pay will figure it out.

One last thing: this is a controversial issue.  If you comment, follow the rules.  Other blogs allow and even encourage attacks on third parties but I do not.  If you disagree with this action, say your piece and keep it at that.  If you want to say terrible things about other Council members or the Mayor, cowboy up and send them an email under your own name 'cause you ain't doing it here.

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